Muti is a word freely bandied about, here in South Africa. As a child growing up, our household German was freely sprinkled with English, Afrikaans and Zulu words, even some Osnabrueck, (Low German). Muti is the Zulu and Xhosa word for medicine and probably other indigenous languages use the same label. So when a member of the family had a boil, chapped hands, a stye or a cough, that’s the word that was employed, instead of a serious German word. ‘Muti’ was a panacea that healed everything. A most friendly word if ever there was one – medicine, remedy, a problem-salver in its broadest sense and used especially for younger children’s hurts.
There is of course another meaning to ‘muti’, meaning a remedy devised by a traditional healer or sangoma. Witchdoctor is a somewhat more negative word for these people, dating from the colonial era, and rapidly losing currency. It’s true that when one hears of a ‘muti-killing’, the images that come up are horrendous. Especially in the far North-West of the country, it still happens that some poor soul is killed and his head buried in a field to ensure a good harvest. Generally, muti involving human body parts, and sadly, especially those of young children, (virgins are highly sought-after) is said to be very powerful indeed. Naturally the price for this kind of muti reflects that, but the hoped-for outcome seems to make these diabolical practices worth the money, to the desperate clients that seek out these practitioners. It goes without saying that very few sangomas do this, but there are bad eggs in every field of endeavour.
I once had cause to reflect on the power of muti. I’d never given traditional medicine a single thought before, but the way these events turned out was beyond logic. It was in Durban in 1996, and I had an office overlooking the yacht basin. Often after supper at home, I’d return to work if the project was urgent and deadlines were pressing, and work till late. There was always a security guard at a little table in the foyer, a few steps from the lift. That week it was an older man called Johnson. We’d become fairly friendly, he’d told me his nickname at home was Makhekhe, and apparently he’d defended me to an older colleague of his who sometimes had chosen to turn a deaf ear to my knocking so that he wouldn’t be disturbed later that night (when I had to leave) and could catch up on his sleep. He was always tired because in addition to his night-shift, he had a sewing business to supervise during the day. Well we all have our problems. But Johnson had pleaded my case, saying I was a poor woman who worked very hard to survive and it was unfair of him to treat me so badly. After that I had no more trouble, for which I was grateful.
I walked in on this evening and Johnson was nowhere to be seen. I thought nothing of it, and when a guy garnished with dreads and dressed in dungarees came out of the lift, I carried on doing what comes next, greeted him and went up to my office on the first floor. I’m South African-German okay, we were brought up not to question anything.
After I’d been working happily for around half an hour, Johnson came in, a little out of breath. He said ‘You were nearly dead just now.’ I just looked at him. He was sweating. He said a gang of men had come in, forced him to one of the upper floors and while they were raiding things from various places including the building site next door (lots of very valuable machinery went awol that night) he had a gun pressed to his head, probably for around an hour. Leading this lot was a colleague of his, one Derek, a much younger man whom I knew well by sight.
They had all apparently watched me arrive in my car, walk over the parking lot and discussed whether to shoot me or not. ‘No’ said Derek, ‘I know that woman. She won’t make any trouble, we’ll just leave her alone and stay out of sight.’ Johnson was also ordered not to alert me because if he did, things could go badly. They let him go once all the loot was loaded into their little white truck and that was when Johnson came to my office – we put the light off and watched them leaving from my window above the driveway.
So far so normal. What happened next was weird. Johnson was more than happy to take the risk and report their misdeed, so I phoned the police immediately, but they didn’t answer during the first call. The second attempt was successful only in that they answered. I spoke to a Constable Govender, explained the situation, and handed the phone to Johnson. He spoke to her too, but she seemed to give him short shrift, and not take us very seriously. Nobody arrived to take a statement or fingerprints. Not fazed, he and I both wrote out a report of the night’s events and I made a copy of each. The next day I handed the reports to the man in charge of the company running the building.
Nothing happened. Nothing at all. Derek was back at his post two days after that, during the day shift, and we greeted each other as if that evening had not happened. I of course was waiting for him to be arrested, but Derek looked as relaxed and at peace with the world as ever, day after day. He had nothing on his mind apparently. When Johnson was back on duty he told me that Derek had given him a bottle of whiskey for keeping quiet. So clearly there was a strong foundation to Derek’s serenity.
I sent a letter to the man in charge of the management company and explained that I was rather puzzled that nothing had happened, but that Johnson and I had done our part and I was happy to leave it in his hands. This was just in case the report hadn’t actually reached him. I was so bewildered… couldn’t work it out at all. The machinery they nicked from the building in progress next door had been worth tens of thousands. Were people so inured to theft that the insurance side of things was enough to just mend all that was broken and stolen, and it was all just too much hassle?
During another chat with Johnson a few nights later, he said – ‘Derek has very strong muti.’ Derek had apparently mentioned this to him, probably feeling a bit expansive after the success of his exploit. I can’t think of any other explanation for the way things went that night. The guy in the foyer could’ve been stopped by me, with an innocent question about where Johnson was… I think he was unaware that I was coming in, and was not with the rest of them when they were watching me arrive. The police could have done their job, and arrived on the scene within ten minutes. The police station is a block away from that building. The manager of the building could have responded. I gave him two opportunities to do so.
When I moved out of my office after building a studio at home, Derek was still employed there. I think muti works. But like anything to which human beings assign power and value, it can be used for good or evil ends.
I often wonder, for instance, if Mugabe has strong muti.